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How To Tell Good Literary Agents From Bad Literary Agents, by Amy Kathleen Ryan

In my previous post, I discussed why a novelist should have an agent. What follows is a step by step process for how to tell the good agents from the bad.

A good agent doesn’t ask for money up front. Every book and magazine on being a writer will tell you this. Everything agents earn from you comes out of sales of your work. Most agents make about 15% on domestic sales and 20% on international sales. I’ve heard some agents are asking for a bit more but this is the basic guideline. Many good agents will also deduct some expenses from your take home pay, for example any travel, postage and long distance costs that were incurred during the sale of your manuscript. My agent does this and I’m okay with it. If someone asks for a “reading fee” or charges you for their editing services up front, I’d be very wary.

A good agent has a list of recent sales to reputable publishers and is capable of landing a decent advance. Most agents will list their clients on their website and you can check there for recent sales but the best way to determine an agent’s negotiating prowess is to buy an inexpensive subscription to The Literary Marketplace, where almost every sale to a publisher is trumpeted with a little code key for how much money the author landed for his/her manuscript. If an agent has gotten a “Significant Deal” or a “Major Deal” for a client within the last few years, you know this agent is capable of successfully running a bidding war. This doesn’t guarantee a bidding war for your work but at least you’ll know it’s a possibility.

A good agent gets good reviews from their clients. Before signing an agency contract, you can ask for references for your agent. I believe most agents are very willing to have current clients speak with prospective clients. You might want to ask things like how long it takes for the agent returns the author’s phone calls and emails, how long the author had to wait for the agent to submit their first book, and how the author would describe the agent’s communication style. I would caution you not to be too stringent with the way you evaluate these answers. A good agent will have a lot of clients and can get very busy, and might not always return calls/emails as promptly as you might wish. Also, I had to wait about six months for my agent to submit the first book I sold with her but I’ve never had to wait that long since. In other words, sometimes a good agent is worth waiting for. Only you can decide how long you’re willing to spend waiting for your agent to get around to you.

But how do you get an agent in the first place? My next post will answer that question. Stay tuned!

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Amy Kathleen Ryan’s author website: www.amykathleenryan.com

Amy Kathleen Ryan’s bio page

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On Joining A Writing Group Or Writing Alone, by Paul Volponi

Over the last 14 years, I’ve written 10 Young Adult novels. I wrote the first one, Rikers High (originally entitled Rikers), without even knowing I could write a novel. Before that, I’d written mostly sports articles. I attempted the novel because HBO was pondering the idea of taking a newspaper article I’d penned on teens attending high school in jail and turning into a movie. I knew they’d change things plenty, running with it in any direction they wished. So I wanted a novel to reflect my actual experiences, with my name on it.

What gave me the glimmer of hope that I could actually write a novel? Well, while I was working on Rikers Island, I was surrounded by other teachers who were aspiring novelists. They would sit in the computer room before and between classes working on their stories. I turned to one of them one day and said something like, “That’s amazing how you guys can write such big stories with all those characters and plot twists.” The guy replied, “If I can write a few good paragraphs a day, it really adds up.”

That was probably the best writing advice I’ve ever received and my only real interaction with a writers’ group. Living in New York City, I casually know several accomplished Young Adult novelists. A few of them meet regularly in a writers’ group, bouncing ideas off of each other and showing pages of their new material. Do I think being part of a similar group could help a fledgling YA novelist? I absolutely do. It’s fantastic to get feedback on your plot-lines, characters, dialogue and key scenes.

How come I don’t do that? Lone wolf syndrome, I guess. I like to work early in the morning, then re-read and rewrite in the afternoon. I work every day without fail. At night, I spend time with my wife and daughter. I prefer not to go out to meet with other writers. I do, however, have several first-readers who look at my early versions of things – usually well before my editor ever sees it. It’s a small readership of people whose opinions I respect.

Obviously, every writer is different. It may be very hard to even find good advice or a supportive group, let alone make meaningful connections with other YA novelists, but I do believe that getting feedback from somewhere can help a writer immensely and should be sought.

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Paul Volponi’s author website: www.paulvolponibooks.com

Paul Volponi’s bio page

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Writing Teen Novels
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Voice In My Teen Novels, by Kashmira Sheth

When I first started writing I had a hard time understanding what voice was and how I could give distinct voices to my characters. Should I have them talk with an Indian accent? Would that be enough? I didn’t think so.

I read more books, looking for voice, and as I wrote my first novel the concept became clearer. Voice is how people express themselves. It has to do not only with accent, but also with word choice, with sentence structure, with figure of speech, and most importantly with how a character views the world and themself. Beyond all that there is time, place and culture to consider.

There are regional differences in how any language is spoken. Characters speaking in English from the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States or India sound different from one another. They pronounce things differently, greet each other differently and put emphasis on different syllables. In some parts of the world, people may spit sentences out so fast you wonder how they were able to keep them from getting tangled up.  In others, people may draw out their words slowly and carefully like each sound is a nugget of gold that they have to weigh precisely.

Depending on their age or background some characters use short, simple sentences. Some use long and convoluted ones that go on and on, with the help of punctuation, and if you are not paying attention, their meanings could be lost.

Then there are figures of speech. Our inner world is colored with our outer world. The physical surroundings, including weather, seasons, terrain, plants, animals, and people have a profound impact on how they express themselves. For example, a character living in a desert might use a spiky cactus to describe a prickly personality, while a character living near a rocky beach may compare it to sharp rocks. A character’s profession will also shape the way they talk and think.  A poet may describe a sunset differently than a scientist, even though they are both watching the same sunset at the same time and same place. The metaphors and similes our characters use or don’t use reflect their environment and their backgrounds. This makes up part of their voice.

Our character’s position in life will influence how our character views the world, which in turn will impact their voice. If she is a princess she is going to view world differently than if she is a chambermaid. They both may be living in the same palace but they view it differently, they express their thoughts differently and they expect others to communicate with them differently. Again, who they are will give each of them a unique voice.

Time, place and culture will also impact our character’s voice. A modern day princess will express herself very differently than, say, a princess in the 14th century.  Also, a 14th century Indian princess might talk differently to her father than a Russian princess during the same time.

What has worked for me is to know my characters well. Then I concentrate on the scene. Once I have a scene in my mind, and see my characters moving and interacting with other people in their physical space, the voice comes out naturally.

Voice was not as elusive as I had thought.

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Kashmira Sheth’s author website: www.kashmirasheth.com

Kashmira Sheth’s bio page

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Writing Teen Novels
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Choosing The Right Story For Your Teen Novel, by Paul Volponi

After having written 10 novels for young adults, I believe that the most challenging aspect of writing a YA novel is choosing the right story. Why?  You’re probably going to live with that story every day for a long while. In my case, it usually takes me anywhere from 10 months to a year to complete a novel. Then, following the initial writing process, there will probably be several more months of working with the editor representing the publishing company, making modifications on the novel. So there is little doubt that you need to choose a story that inspires you. Now, if you are writing to satisfy yourself, that’s terrific. Pick a story that speaks to you and have at it. If your goal is to be published, however, there are some things to keep in mind about story selection, especially if you have never sold a novel before.

First, be careful about picking a subject that is too esoteric. Even if your manuscript is solid, you may have a hard time getting a publisher to commit to a story about a sport such as crew (rowing). Yes, millions of people are passionate about it. But unless you completely write the eyes out of that story, publishers looking for sales might pass it by for a story on a more mainstream sport. As a personal example, even after solid successes with Black and White, Rikers High and The Final Four, I could not get a major publisher to embrace an idea for a novel based on martial arts. Also, books on historical fiction, such as the American Revolution and the Civil War, seem to have a very high bar to get over, probably because those subjects are tackled so often by writers.

Next, make sure the voice you have chosen for your novel is appropriate. If you are writing for young adults (age 13 and up), the voice should be one to which teens can relate. That may mean pulling back on your vocabulary. Remember, you’re speaking to teens, not your superbly read friends. I find that some fledgling writers fall into the trap of trying to impress people with their knowledge, instead of trying to tell a good and relatable story. Check out the voices in a handful of current novels in the genre in which you are interested. Listen to hear if you’re in a similar key. If not, have a good reason why, not because you have misjudged your audience.

The length of a manuscript can also be important. For example, if you are writing a novel for reluctant teen readers, you probably don’t want to produce a 100,000 word tome that would scare them off from reading it. On the other end of the spectrum, a shorter YA novel probably runs about 30,000 words.

On this final point, let me be very clear – you should always write about situations that inspire you. You should never be afraid to step out of the box if that’s where your creativity takes you. I have seen several terrific manuscripts from first-time novelists that break all the rules. Some of these manuscripts get glowing praise from editors. But in an odd turnaround, sometimes those same editors ultimately decline to publish, saying it’s not a good business decision for them. So, if getting published is your ultimate goal, choose a story and its corresponding elements carefully.

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Paul Volponi’s author website: www.paulvolponibooks.com

Paul Volponi’s bio page

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Writing Teen Novels
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On Creating Conflict (Secrets Of Narrative Drive), by Sarah Mussi

Getting teenagers to read is a tough job. We know for a start they have plenty more to do with their lives than pick up a book. We know that we can’t compete with the telly and wouldn’t dare try to steal time away from the mobile, but does that mean we don’t try at all?

Never!

The thing is if you are a writer of teen fiction you’ve got to find readers, and it’s up to you to figure out how. I knew it was going to be tough when I started writing for young adults, but I was up for the challenge. There was only one little caveat – if getting teenagers to read any book was going to be tough, then getting teenagers to read a specific book (my book) was going to be even tougher. So did I give up?

Never!

Why not?  Because over the years I’ve discovered a few secrets that have helped me hook in young adult readers and keep them dangling there on the edge of their seats craving more. I’m going to share with you – yes, all you aspiring teen writers out there – my trade secrets! So if you want an young adult to pick up YOUR book and read it avidly from cover to cover, here’s what you need …

You need Narrative Drive.

Narrative Drive helps create spell binding stories. It keeps the reader glued to the pages (I’ve tested this out on me, in the belief that what grabs me will probable grab them too!) So this set of twelve posts will reveal to ze world :

Secrets of Narrative Drive

Secret Number 1.

drum roll…  tada!

Narrative Drive exists in any situation where we have a powerful force or longing faced by an equally powerful obstacle.

For example: Narrative Drive is what keeps us watching a football match. It’s this first secret of Narrative Drive, the powerful force or longing faced by an equally powerful obstacle i.e. the two opposing teams that keep the audience gripped until one of the opposing forces triumphs.

So how you can use this secret?

  1. Create a powerful antagonist (could be a person, natural force or an internal feature of the protagonist)
  2. Pit your protagonist against your antagonist
  3. Let them both have the same story goal - but only one of them can win.

We have many examples of this technique being in popular fiction and in film too – do you have some favourites?

WATCH OUT FOR THE SECOND SECRET OF NARRATIVE DRIVE COMING UP ON MY NEXT POST

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Sarah Mussi’s author website: www.sarahmussi.com

Sarah Mussi’s bio page

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Writing Teen Novels
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How I Became a Young Adult Novelist, by Stewart Lewis (guest post)

I never set out to be a Young Adult author. Still, I am thankful for it, as it’s become my most successful venture in life so far. First I thought I was going to be an actor, but after a stint on a soap opera and a small part in a play that was so bad people were falling asleep in the audience, I knew it wasn’t my thing. So I started writing songs, and put out some records, and got to open for some of my heroes (Ani Difranco gave me a sip of her Latte, Sheryl Crow poured me some wine). All that time, I never wrote anything longer than a song. But I still had a book of short stories by Raymond Carver I always carried with me and, one day on a plane, I wrote my own short story. The people I showed it to loved it, so I decided to get my Masters in writing, as a back up plan in case I didn’t become a full blown rock star – good logic, right? Sure enough, two months after getting my degree, my first adult novel, Rockstarlet was sold. As I was writing my second adult novel, Relative Stranger, I desperately wanted an agent. A finally had the interest of a good one, from a great agency. He helped me with the book, but never signed me. I was crushed, but moved forward and sold the novel myself. But I remembered something the agent told me. He felt that I had really nailed the voice of the teenage girl in the novel. So it came to me after reading about the growth of teen literature in publishing in the Times. I should switch to Young Adult.

The idea for the character of Luna in You Have Seven Messages came from hanging out with the niece of a friend of mine, Emma, who was thirteen at the time. One day when we were all driving in the car, my friend noticed Emma’s cell phone had nail polish on it. She said to her niece, “I did that to my phone too!”

Emma said, “I was eleven, what’s your excuse?”

We all laughed and continued on our journey, but in the back of my mind I was thinking, she is a character in a book. Luna is not a carbon copy of Emma, but she was definitely the spark that ignited the flame.

Over the next year, I wrote You Have Seven Messages in my bed, on the couch, at the kitchen table, on the floor, on planes, by a pool, and mostly in a small cottage on the beach in the middle of winter. It was a lot of work, but I don’t really consider it work. Writing is just something I love to do.

I sent it to the same agent, and he was thrilled. He signed me right away. He wrote this amazing letter about it to send to publishers with the manuscript. It sold pretty quickly, and the next thing you know it was on the “tough stuff” table in Barnes & Noble stores nationwide, next to titles like The Fault In Our Stars and Thirteen Reasons Why. I had to pinch myself. You Have Seven Messages has since been translated into five languages. My next young adult novel, The Secret Ingredient, comes out in May 2013.

People always ask me, “How do you write a book?” The truth is I really don’t know, it’s something that just comes out of me. Sometimes I jokingly say there’s a teenage girl inside of every gay man, but it’s more than that. It’s about making connections. About remembering something an agent said as he rejected you, taking a comment from your friend’s niece and treating it as a small seed. It’s about living life to the fullest, traveling, reading, doing unexpected things, experiencing as much as possible. Being open. As I write, those connections are like a network of electric atoms in my subconscious, coming to life in something a character does, or how a scene unfolds. It sounds esoteric, but it’s the only way I can explain it. Connections.

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Stewart Lewis author site: www.stewartlewis.com

You Have Seven MessagesThe Fault in Our StarsTh1rteen R3asons WhyWill You Please be Quiet, Please?: StoriesAmerican Short Story Masterpieces

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